New York City – flooding, crowds and an aggressive commuter called McGavin

December 2, 2017

Sun 26th - 21km


Following an unexpectedly hilly route in Portugal, my body was quite sore when I got up to begin the run in New York. However, thanks to Kath’s amazing mapping skills and Connor’s aggressive bell action, we had a relatively smooth run through the crowded city streets.  I should say, relatively smooth aside from the Brooklyn Bridge, where we got told off for everything, including; running in the walking lane, biking in the bike lane and stopping too suddenly. One guy in his 60s, wearing knee-high pink socks and the name “McGavin” printed on the back of his shirt, was particularly aggrieved with our decision to cross the East River in our 4-man convoy. Pink-socks McGavin took a long, exaggerated stride off the footpath shaking his head and swearing like somehow it had been our primary intention to disrupt his 5km commute into work. I wanted to point out to him that it was actually the tourists in front of us taking selfies that were causing the particular gridlock; however, McGavin didn’t look like he was the kind of guy for excuses. 

After crossing the bridge and descending on Manhattan, we headed down Broadway towards the 9/11 memorial. In his 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore warned of the impending impacts of climate change, including the effects of storm surge and sea level rise, on lower Manhattan. He presented a model that depicted water gushing through the streets and flooding the World Trade Centre site (which now contains this memorial).  At a time when conclusive research on the cause and effects of climate change was only just starting to receive proper recognition (the Stern Review was published later in 2006 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report, which concluded that it is more than 90% likely that humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gasses are responsible for modern day climate change, was released in 2007), Gore was criticised by many for this “inflated” prediction. Six years later, Superstorm Sandy hit, severely flooding the memorial, substantiating Gore’s claim and resulting in extensive damage.


According to the New York Department of Conservation, the city has seen at least a foot of sea level rise since 1900, mostly due to the expansion of warming ocean waters. In a 2015 Report, the New York City Panel on Climate Change projected that sea levels around New York City will rise 11 to 21 inches by the middle of the century, 18 to 39 inches by the 2080s, and up to 6 feet by 2100. 


To find out what this would mean in reality, we ran around the coast past Battery Park, until we hit Fulton Street on the southeast of Manhattan Island. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed this crafty online web mapping tool that allows you to visualise community-level impacts from coastal flooding or sea level rise (up to 6 feet above average high tides). I used this to assess the effects of sea level rise directly where we were standing. 



The first photo below is me on Fulton Street now. The second photo is Fulton Street following 4ft of sea-level rise (McGavin’s pink socks would be underwater). The third photo is Fulton Street following 6ft of sea-level rise, which could occur by the end of this century, according to the New York City Panel on Climate Change.


For Miami, which is often cited as ground-zero for climate change, it may already be too late. The city is built on porous limestone and so the water doesn’t just come up over the seawalls; it seeps up from under the streets. Seawater is already beginning to contaminate aquifers that contain almost 90% of the drinking water in south Florida and more than $400 million has already been invested to rebuild the city’s storm sewers. One man that I talked to when I was there described numerous experiences of waist-deep flooding in the financial district, Brickell, where he works.


Although it doesn’t appear that President Donald Trump is doing too much about this imminent threat, he is actually one of the property owners with a stake in the issue. He frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, 121km north of Miami, which is itself an area experiencing flooding from high tides. 


[The photo above depicts what South Beach, Miami, would look like following 3°C temperature rise. Photograph: Nickolay Lamm/Courtesy Climate Central]


Globally, the future looks just as startling. Until recently it was thought that global sea levels would only rise by 1m, or just under, by the end of this century. However, these estimates did not take into account the melting of massive ice sheets such as Greenland and Antarctica. (The models were simply looking at expanding ocean waters and the melting of relatively small glaciers). Taking these ice sheets into account, scientists have now concluded that if high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue, oceans could rise by close to 2m in total (more than six feet) by 2100.

Authors of a new study published last year in Nature Climate Change note that most research, such as that mentioned above, looks at the impacts of global warming by 2100, missing the long-term melting of polar ice caps and sea-level rise.  The issue is that ice sheets melt quite slowly, but because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, the eventual melting and associated sea level rise are effectively locked in. The study found that, due to the carbon we have already emitted, we have committed the planet to an eventual sea level rise of 1.7m (5.5 feet). If we manage to achieve the goal of keeping the planet below 2°C warming, sea levels will nevertheless rise a total of about 9m (30 feet) above their current heights. This means that even if we stay below the 2 °C threshold, cities such as New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta and Shanghai would all eventually be submerged and 20% of the world’s population will have to relocate at some point in the future. The graph above illustrates that even if global warming is held at 2°C, 25 – 50% of New Zealand’s population will be drowned due to long-term sea level rise. This is extremely concerning, in that we have a global commitment to keep global warming to 2°C, which we are not currently on track to meet. (The business as usual approach, i.e if nothing is done to curb carbon emissions, would likely instigate a 4°C rise in temperature in the coming decades.) Even if we can achieve the relatively ambitious 2°C target, the consequences may still be catastrophic.


The flooding that is occurring now is concerning enough, however it is the future predictions that are almost unbelievable. On the upside, the forest fires that I posted about in my last blog wont be too much of an issue if we are going to be largely underwater anyway…






Thank you to the excellent NYC team of Kath, Connor and Kat who, despite two Stravas and a Garmin malfunctioning, managed to plan out a route and get us to the end of 21km in record time. 




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